Lindsey Graham Doesn’t Want a Primary

A parlor game has begun to explain the South Carolina senator’s volcanic anger over the Kavanaugh nomination and his embrace of the president.

Michael Reynolds / Reuters

The smoke from the Brett Kavanaugh war is beginning to dissipate, but Lindsey Graham is still smoldering. On Fox News Sunday, the South Carolina senator declared, “I’ve never been so pissed in my life.” He denounced the sexual-assault allegations leveled against Kavanaugh as “McCarthyism,” vowed to stump this fall against Democrats as payback, and announced that he would spend Sunday golfing again with his pal President Donald Trump—the same man he formerly dismissed as a demagogic misogynist. Graham warned his fellow Republicans in 2015, “The way that he attacks women is going to be a death blow to the future of our party.”

But now that Graham has cranked up the volume on behalf of beleaguered men—“I am a single white male from South Carolina, and I’m told I should shut up, but I will not shut up”—the Graham parlor game has gone into overdrive. Why does John McCain’s former “wingman” (Graham’s self-description) seem so intent on betraying his mentor’s independent streak? What explains his hard-right turn toward Trumpism?

Everyone in politics seems to have a theory: Steve Schmidt, the former Republican strategist, tweets that Graham “is a political careerist and an unequaled sycophant when it comes to finding favor with power.” Another Republican operative, who knows Graham well, tells me privately: “All of us have talked about this. He started drifting toward Trump when McCain got sick.”

Maybe Graham is auditioning to succeed Jeff Sessions as a more pliable attorney general. Or maybe he’s simply Machiavellian in the extreme; as Tommy Vietor, a former Obama aide, tweets, “When Obama first took office, [Graham] lived in Rahm Emanuel’s office,” referring to Obama’s first chief of staff. “He has no core beliefs. He just drifts in the political wind.”

The likeliest explanation is hiding in plain sight: Graham, like so many of his Republican brethren, suffers from a political disease that fellow South Carolinian Mark Sanford calls “fear of local folks.”

Most elected Republicans in Washington live in fear of the local folks, most of whom have pledged their fealty to Trump. The president’s takeover of the GOP is so complete that any dissenting lawmaker faces a hailstorm of Trump-tweeted abuse and, at worst, potential annihilation at the ballot box. Occasional Trump critics Jeff Flake and Bob Corker are leaving the Senate rather than risking being ousted by Trump-allied challengers in GOP primaries. Graham’s survival instincts are well attuned to political reality, particularly in one of America’s reddest states, where there’s virtually no downside to hugging Trump but hell to pay for defying him.

The fear of local folks is endemic in bluer states as well. Perhaps Susan Collins was genuinely happy with Kavanaugh when she cast her pivotal Senate vote and subsequently insisted that Christine Blasey Ford’s 100 percent certitude about Kavanaugh was simply wrong. But the political facts of life in Maine are unmistakable: If Collins had voted “no” on Kavanaugh, she likely would have faced a strong conservative challenge in a 2020 GOP primary, perhaps from Trump-allied Governor Paul LePage, who is currently term limited. Outside money from litmus-test Trump groups would have poured into the state. Collins may still have a tough reelection race, against a Democratic challenger bankrolled by progressive groups incensed by her Kavanaugh vote, but her odds of surviving a closed Republican primary may well have been worse.

Graham’s standing in South Carolina has been shaky for years. Long before Trump entered politics, litmus-test conservatives and talk-show hosts dogged his footsteps. They were infuriated that Graham hung out at the Obama White House and that Graham, on Meet The Press, praised Obama as “a good role model” and “an American just as much as anyone else.” Glenn Beck said that Graham was “Obama lite.” Rush Limbaugh, angered by Graham’s support for path-to-citizenship immigration reform (a stance Graham shared with McCain), nicknamed the senator “Grahamnesty.” In 2010, the anti-tax Club for Growth ranked Graham last among all Republican senators, which, to the state’s right-wingers, cemented his reputation as a Republican In Name Only.

Something else happened there in 2010, a portentous development for dissident Republicans everywhere. The rino hunt bagged a congressman named Bob Inglis. Inglis was a reliable rightist—a 93 percent lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union, a 100 percent rating from the Christian Coalition—and he’d represented his district for 12 years. But at a public event, early in what proved to be his final year, he was asked whether he believed humans caused climate change. He made the mistake of committing candor. He said yes, humans cause climate change. The crowd booed and hissed; as Inglis later recalled, “I was blasted out.” He was subsequently slaughtered in a Republican primary—71 to 29 percent—by a more conservative challenger named Trey Gowdy. The lesson of Inglis’s defeat was that any deviance from ideological fealty could kill a career.

The RINO hunters similarly targeted Graham when he was up for reelection in 2014—the conservative National Review tagged him as one of the nation’s most vulnerable incumbents—but he survived a tempestuous primary in part because six weak challengers divvied up the opposition vote. His current embrace of Trump, and his top-volume defense of Kavanaugh, seem designed to buttress his right flank—and dissuade any 2020 primary challengers, a potential field that theoretically includes John Warren, a millionaire ex-Marine; the departing UN ambassador, Nikki Haley; and Trump’s budget director, Mick Mulvaney.

And if Graham needed any fresh evidence of what awaits dissenters in South Carolina, which is basically a one-party state, Sanford’s recent experience should suffice. Sanford learned his “fear of local folks” lesson the hard way. A conservative congressman (and former governor), Sanford had dared to disagree with Trump on several high-profile issues. During the ’16 campaign, he called on Trump to release his tax returns. Earlier this year, he assailed Trump’s international trade war as “an experiment in stupidity.” He said it was “stupid” for Trump to demean “shithole” African nations. He attended a House meeting with Trump and later publicly described the president’s dialogue as “the normal stream of consciousness that’s long on hyperbole and short on facts.” Th result: In a Republican primary this past June, Sanford was bounced from office by a Trump-allied challenger who had repeatedly assailed Sanford as “disloyal.” After the results were tallied, the conservative commentator Erick Erickson said, “Mark Sanford losing in South Carolina is pretty much proof positive that the GOP … is now fully a cult of personality.”

This spring, Graham’s approval rating in South Carolina was a tepid 41 percent, nearly 15 points lower than Trump’s. For Graham, who reputedly treasures his senatorial identity—he recently said, “My No. 1 goal right now is to keep doing my day job”—the task of feeding the base is the highest priority. If he goes on the campaign trail to hail Kavanaugh and harass Democratic candidates, there’s scant political downside back home. Standing tall for purportedly victimized men might help erase some of the disparaging nicknames (“Flimsy Graham”) that dog him back home. As he dryly noted on Fox News Sunday, “I think I can survive in South Carolina.”

In the words of Brian Rosenwald, a resident senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Fox Leadership Program and the author of a forthcoming book on conservative talk radio, “A smart politician, understanding that landscape, says, ‘Okay, I’ve got to at least get to the point where Trump doesn’t out and out oppose me, because if he does, I’m done in 2020 in a primary.’ [Graham] knows that infuriating the left and the media really poses no risk, given the nature of his state … And look at the outcome: Here’s a guy who Sean Hannity has decried as a RINO in the past, and he’s the darling of conservative media right now. Politically, make no mistake about it, this is a win for Graham.”